The autumn Budget finally heralded a new positive chapter in the otherwise chequered history of reforms to the apprenticeship programme including those that accompanied the introduction of the levy in 2017. Representing the training providers that train three out of every four apprentices in England, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) is a strong supporter of the levy in principle, but its implementation contained some fundamental errors which have been hard to bear for both employers and would-be apprentices over the last 18 months.
For a government which says that it is deeply committed to social mobility and one that needs a highly skilled home grown workforce to respond to post-Brexit labour market challenges, it was becoming increasingly difficult to defend a set of reforms that has led to a catastrophic fall in the number of apprenticeships being offered. The latest official statistics show that total starts on the programme were 25,200 in July, a 43 per cent drop on the same month’s two years ago. For the full year 2017-18, apprenticeship opportunities at starter level were 45 per cent lower than two years ago while starts for young people were a quarter less.
The Chancellor has now stepped in with a series of welcome measures in the Budget. In addition to confirming a review of the future workings of the levy system, he announced a halving of the 10 per cent fee that small businesses have to pay when taking on an apprentice. The fee requirement was introduced alongside the levy and AELP has since been calling for its removal in respect of young people under 25 being offered apprenticeships at the lower levels.
This significant shift in policy should enable training providers to work with smaller businesses to start offering again more apprenticeships to young people and local communities, particularly in areas of the country where large levy-paying employers aren’t present. On its own, however, the announcement will not be the panacea for rectifying the falling start numbers. AELP’s provider members support over 350,000 employers with their training needs and repeated surveys of them point to another reform that has turned many employers away from the apprenticeship programme. In fact after the fee issue, it is cited as by far the biggest barrier to engagement for large and small companies alike.
Every apprentice must now spend at least 20 per cent of their contracted working hours learning “off the job.” The title alone is misleading as much of the training interaction in the workplace is considered off the job. But even with a better understanding, this overarching requirement—no matter what the sector, the workplace environment, the level and type of learning, the ban on homework—all lends itself to an inflexible and in many cases unworkable apprenticeship. Again, employers and providers have no problem with off-the-job training in principle; it is the new stipulation that the time spent must be 20 per cent and in many sectors, this is coming up against strong employer resistance. For example NHS Trusts, who with the rest of the public sector have been set apprenticeship recruitment targets, complain regularly about the cost of staff backfill when their apprentices are taken off the job.
In its recent critical report on the reforms, the education select committee in the House of Commons agreed with AELP that a more flexible approach for each apprenticeship standard should be adopted for the off-the-job training rule. Ministers feel that the uniform requirement is the cornerstone of a good quality apprenticeship. However Ofsted has made it clear that just by calling it a measure of quality doesn’t necessarily make it one, i.e. we can all sit in a classroom for a day but that doesn’t mean that we are getting quality learning. The common sense shown by the select committee and Ofsted on this needs to be accepted by the government.
Another important need is for the government to adequately fund the teaching of applied maths and English within an apprenticeship for those who need it. The provision is currently funded at half of the normal rate for all other learners.